Considering the Moral Motivations for Whistle-Blowing

Psychologist Adam Waytz is dedicated to uncovering how opposing sides of moral conflicts understand and misunderstand each other’s motives. Adam studies the causes and consequences of perceiving mental states in other entities and investigates processes related to social influence, social connection, meaning-making, morality, and ethics. His ongoing work explores questions with direct application to politics, society, and current events; for example, studying how people establish trust with autonomous vehicles. At Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University where Adam is an associate professor, his classes focus on how to resolve difficult ethical dilemmas and how to lead through values and ethical appeals rather than through traditional means. Adam was a Speaker at TEDMED 2018, and you can watch his Talk here.


Last week I attended the fifth annual conference of the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, which showcased how behavioral science can help create better public policies. Topics included how to improve financial decision-making, how to get people to increase vaccination uptake, and how to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting (to reduce carbon dioxide emissions). As I listened to the talks, it struck me that current governmental and organizational policies surrounding whistle-blowing are sorely lacking in incorporating insights from behavioral science.

The theme of my 2018 TEDMED Talk is that whistle-blowers, people who expose unethical conduct to outsiders, tend to be motivated by moral incentives. Whistle-blowers report wrongdoing out of a sense of justice and altruism as our research has shown, yet the dominant whistle-blower protection program in the United States centers on more self-serving incentives. The Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program offers monetary rewards to people who report financial misconduct to the Security and Exchange Commissions (SEC) provided that the reporting results in successful prosecution and $1 million or more in sanctions.

Although reporting has increased under the program, its effectiveness in curbing financial misconduct is unclear (only 62 awards have been granted, amidst thousands of complaints since 2012). Furthermore, some research suggests that offering financial incentives can backfire. One set of studies shows that when whistleblower rewards are present but a potential whistle-blower is ineligible for the reward (because the fraud uncovered fell under the $1 million threshold), people assume the whistle-blower would be less willing to come forward compared to when no incentive is present at all. Other work suggests that although financial incentives for reporting organizational misconduct externally (i.e., to the SEC) can increase external reporting, it can simultaneously discourage people’s willingness to report misconduct internally to their companies.

So how do we build policies to encourage whistle-blowing that incorporate people’s moral motivations? Perhaps organizations could start by destigmatizing whistle-blowers as traitors or tattle-tales, communicating the message that what it means to be a good organizational citizen is calling out the company when it gets things wrong. One radical approach at the governmental level could be changing the nature of the financial incentive to be prosocial rather than self-serving, stating that if a whistle-blower uncovers misconduct, monetary rewards will be paid to the victims of that misconduct rather than to the whistle-blower. Reforming our whistle-blower policies will require bold action, and we can start by incorporating the lessons of social science to these efforts.